Analyze this: Much more than a border problem

Sep. 14, 2005: "Hamas blows hole in Gaza border." Rings a bell?

Rafah broken wall 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Rafah broken wall 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
"Hamas blows hole in Gaza border" was the BBC headline on September 14, 2005 - just days after the IDF had withdrawn from the Philadelphi Corridor to complete Israel's disengagement from Gaza. Thousands of Palestinians then streamed across the shattered border fence into Egypt, just like this week. But nobody was hungry then; nobody needed fuel or medicine. Hamas blew up the border barrier just to make a point: Don't fence us in. We'll decide where the borders are - and we don't accept the pre-1967 lines as the basis for anything, certainly not for living in peace alongside a Jewish state. A few days later, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published a paper by Brig.-Gen. (res.) Michael Fox titled "A New Reality on the Egypt-Gaza Border," which took stock of the security arrangements established by Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and the foreign observers assigned to monitor the new Rafah crossing, in a bid to avoid a repetition of the initial chaos following the IDF withdrawal. Fox concluded: "Failure to shape a stable and secure reality along the Egypt-Gaza border would negatively affect the 'cold peace' of Egyptian-Israeli relations. Moreover, against the backdrop of the PA's lax attitude toward disarming Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups, such a failure would render it much harder to reconcile Israeli security needs and Palestinian political goals. It would become practically impossible to implement one of the few goals agreed upon at the failed 2000 Camp David summit, the demilitarization of the future Palestinian state. The stakes are high for all parties concerned." Indeed they were. In particular for the Fatah-controlled PA, which allowed Hamas to continue to smuggle weapons through and under the border - weapons that ended up being turned against them when Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007. And the stakes continue to be high, as Hamas remains committed to using the Strip as a forward base for the forces of radical Islam to attack Israel with impunity, and in doing so, to undermine any chance its rivals for Palestinian leadership in Ramallah have to come to a negotiated two-state settlement with the Zionist entity. To achieve those goals, Hamas must retain the ability to continually improve its strategic position vis-à-vis Israel by bringing in more advanced weaponry to Gaza - mines, antitank weapons, longer range and more powerful rockets, and even surface-to-air missiles. It must be able to send its fighters out for professional training in such places as Iran and Syria and then bring them back in. And it must maintain a flow of cash to thwart the European Union boycott on direct financial aid to Hamas institutions, especially its security apparatus. The key to all this is for Hamas to control Gaza's southern border crossings with Egypt, and to thwart any attempt by an outside party to deprive it of the freedom to move weapons, cash and personnel through the Philadelphi Corridor. That was the goal in blowing up the fence in September 2005 - and also in January 2008. When it serves Hamas's purpose to have Gazans go hungry or sit in darkness to achieve that goal, that is a tactic it will clearly not hesitate to use. If Israel is forced to tackle this situation alone, there can be no doubt that at some point it will have to launch a military operation to re-secure Gaza's southern border, and perhaps re-occupy the Philadelphi Corridor, at least temporarily. That would surely be a costly operation, and also bring an end to the current negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas's PA - which is why the Olmert government is not yet seriously considering this step. You can be sure, though, that if we start seeing more Katyusha rockets heading in the direction of Ashkelon, even this government - or more likely the next - will be forced to take this course. That is if Israel is indeed forced to act alone. The party who should bear the primary responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the Gaza-Sinai border is, of course, Egypt. Unfortunately, its record over the past two years in this regard has been unsatisfactory, if not dismal. In the run-up to US President George W. Bush's visit to the region earlier this month, there were renewed expressions of determination on the part of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to have his forces police the border more efficiently, and reports that the Egyptian army was being given more advanced equipment to deter smuggling via the tunnels between Sinai and Gaza. But it is now apparent that better policing and more advanced equipment is largely beside the point. On at least two occasions in the past month - Wednesday, and when Gazans returning from the Haj pilgrimage were allowed back without being properly checked - Hamas demonstrated an ability to outmaneuver Mubarak, by manipulating the power of Arab public opinion to pressure him into opening the gates. Egypt no longer appears able to control the situation along the border by itself - and new suggestions that they could perhaps do so with the aid of the PA are risible. The only other player in this game is the international community, especially the US and EU, who together have invested so much in the current peace negotiations. Their input so far has been minimal, with the EU observers who were put in place at the Rafah crossing having proved ineffective even before they were pulled away when Hamas took over Gaza. It is understandable, for anyone who watched the calculated chaos at the border Wednesday, that the foreign sponsors of the peace process would be reluctant to get involved there again, much less moving beyond merely being observers. The same reluctance also applied for years when it come to Israel's northern borders, and it took an outright war in the summer of 2006 before more substantial international forces were finally committed to supplement the UNIFIL troops that until then had been ineffective. One hopes it doesn't take a war in Gaza before all of the parties seriously interested in peace and stability realize that a much more serious effort is needed to secure the Gaza-Egypt border. But make no mistake about it - as long as Hamas calls the shots on Gaza's southern border, the threat to Israel will grow, and the peace process will likely find itself facing barriers far more insurmountable than those now in the Philadelphi Crossing. [email protected]